Fort Raleigh National Historic Site marks the site of England's mysterious "Lost Colony." Many people mistakenly believe that Jamestown was the first English colony in what is now the United States, but the real site of the first colony was Roanoke Island, a place shrouded in mystery.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
┬ęColin McNamara
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site marks the location of the first
English colony in what is now the United States.

In the late 1500s, England tried settling North America. The first colony, at Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina, failed. In 1587, more than one hundred men, women, and children tried to start another colony on the island, under the leadership of John White. Later that year, Virginia Dare, White's granddaughter and the first English child born in the New World, arrived. The colonists had settled in and planted crops, but White was afraid they would soon run out of provisions, so he returned to England. By the time he got back to Roanoke, in 1590, nothing was left of the colony. The only clue to the colonists' fate was a single word carved on a tree -- Croatoan -- the Indian name for the nearby island of Hatteras.

Before White sailed for England, the colonists had agreed that if they had to leave the fort, they would carve a Maltese cross above the name of their destination. No cross was carved on the tree. White returned to England in 1591 without discovering the whereabouts of his family and the other colonists.

Archaeologists began excavating the site in the 1940s, but no graves, signs of a massacre, or other clues have surfaced to solve the mystery of the Lost Colony. Today, Fort Raleigh's landscape is similar to what the colonists found when they landed here more than 400 years ago. The quiet, wooded site includes cedar, oak, holly, and other trees that may have been used by the colonists to build boats, houses, or furniture. A nature trail winds through the 150-acre site, and a small earthen fort has been constructed the same way the original one was -- by digging a moat and throwing the earth inward to form its walls.

The fort is square with two pointed bastions on two sides and an octagonal bastion on the third. Historians think houses would have been built near the road leading from the fort entrance. In addition to the original moat, excavations have turned up many artifacts, including a wrought-iron sickle, an Indian pipe, and metal counters used in accounting.

A recent dig revealed what appears to be the remains of America's first scientific laboratory: pieces of smelted lead, pottery, crucible, charcoal, and distilling apparatus used in metallurgy. Artifacts are displayed at the visitor center, which also includes exhibits on the colonists and Elizabethan life, plus copies of John White's watercolors. The Lost Colony presents the story of the Roanoke each summer through a combination of drama, music, and dance.

Elizabethan Gardens

Near Fort Raleigh, the Garden Club of North Carolina created the Elizabethan Gardens as a memorial to the first colonists. The sixteenth-century formal gardens resemble those that graced the English estates of the wealthy backers of the colony.

The gardens cover more than ten acres and include an antique statuary and other garden ornaments dating to the sixteenth century, a replica Tudor gate house, and a beautiful display of native and imported plants.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site Information

Address: 1401 National Park Dr., Manteo, NC
Telephone: 252/473-5772
Hours of Operation: Open daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. September through May except Christmas; open daily 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. June through August
Admission: Free


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To learn more about national monuments, memorials, and historic sites, and other travel destinations in North America, visit:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based author who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.